It’s Groundhog Day. Do you know where (and when) your 2009 retreat is?
Tom Mooney does. Every year since 1970, the Minneapolis lawyer has faithfully fulfilled his plan to get away once a year to pray and reflect at Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minn.
He won’t be alone. Around the country, in what many retreat directors agree are growing numbers, Catholics are regularly withdrawing from their busy schedules to get alone with God in prayer and contemplation.
Somehow the coinciding of Punxsutawney Phil’s forward-looking moment with the feast of the Presentation of the Lord — both celebrated on Monday, Feb. 2 — suggests an ideal time for Catholics to make sure there’s a religious retreat on their 2009 calendar.
Mooney’s experiences, and the rewards his commitment has afforded him, hint at the spiritual growth that awaits regular retreatants.
“I had no intention of making a silent three-day retreat,” says the Minneapolis lawyer, recalling his initial reticence. “But the day before the retreat, my client called and said he would pick me up at 5:30 the next afternoon. My wife, knowing my plan to cancel, told me I’d better go or I wouldn’t be doing further business with this client. Reluctantly, I made that retreat — and have done so every year for the past 37 years.”
Mooney sees his annual time at Demontreville, which is located just north of the Twin Cities and offers silent three-day retreats on all but five weekends of the year, as a time to deepen his relationship with God.
He’s quick to add that it has helped strengthen his bond with his wife of 47 years, who also makes time for a yearly retreat. They try to make their individual retreats within a month or two of each other so they can share their retreat experiences with one other while the memories are still fresh.
Says Mooney, “We firmly believe that yearly retreats are essential — not only to our spirituality but also to our marriage.”
Heart of Ignatius
For Jesuit Father Rob Kroll, an associate director at Demontreville Retreat House, Mooney’s testimony is emblematic of what he hears from many who return again and again for a dose of quiet time with the Lord.
“The men speak of Demontreville as their spiritual home,” says the priest. “Normally a man will even have the same room in the same house year after year.”
The facility draws close to 3,000 men each year, even though it offers only one type of experience: a preached, silent retreat based on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), he wrote the work in the early 1500s, before he became a priest.
“It is significant that Ignatius of Loyola composed his Spiritual Exercises while still a layman,” says Kroll. “They were the fruit of his own experience of God acting in his life. They consist mostly of Scripture, along with a number of key meditations he himself penned.”
At Demontreville, each retreat begins Thursday night and ends Sunday evening after dinner. According to Father Kroll, the meat of the retreat consists of 14 talks given by the retreat director; these are followed by time for each participant to “retreat” for personal prayer and reflection.
“We always tell the men that the retreat master can give you food for thought and prayer, but he cannot make the retreat for you,” explains Father Kroll. “The retreat itself happens when the men take what the retreat master offers and bring it to God.” In this way, he says, “the Holy Spirit can speak to the [participant’s] heart and soul.”
Legionary of Christ Father Richard Gill agrees. In fact, he says, the power of a good retreat lies in the retreatant’s recognition that the real retreat master is the Holy Spirit himself.
“We are called to holiness, and this takes work,” says Father Gill, adding that Catholics need to “create a place for the Holy Spirit to speak to us.”
Father Gill, director of Our Lady of Mount Kisco Retreat Center in Mount Kisco, N.Y., points out that silence, confession, meditative prayer and the Eucharist are essential elements in an authentic Catholic retreat. Each year, the priest offers dozens of retreats, ranging from weekends for men and women to marriage-preparation retreats. All are based on the Ignatian method.
Susan Toscani knows the life-changing power of the annual retreat. She attended a weeklong retreat nearly two decades ago that she still vividly recalls today. “It was extraordinary,” says the semi-retired business executive. “I really knew then that God wanted me to serve him in the world. As a single woman, I was questioning what to do, and I got my answer loud and clear during that week.”
Since 1995, Toscani has been making an annual three-day retreat led by the Legionaries of Christ at Mount Kisco. It is an essential part of her spiritual life, she says, and an opportunity to renew her commitment to go deeper in her relationship with God.
“Whether one is just starting his or her spiritual journey or is a seasoned pro at retreats,” she says, “making time annually to get back in touch with what is truly important is life-enhancing in the truest sense.”
Toscani adds that, in our hyper-busy culture, it can be easy to put off finding a place on your calendar for a retreat — but you only get out of your schedule what you put onto it.
“The entire experience of a weekend retreat, getting back in touch with who you really are and how much God loves you and needs you,” she says, “is the most affirming, healing encounter. You leave a better, more grounded person than when you arrived.”
Back in Minnesota, Father Kroll seconds that enthusiasm. “Every person can benefit from a retreat: to become more grateful for God’s presence and action in his or her life,” he says. After a retreat, we’re “more free from a pattern of sin” and better able to “follow Jesus more faithfully or to experience healing for a wounded heart.”
It’s Groundhog Day — a day to look forward to the spring, summer and fall ahead. Do you know where (and when) your 2009 retreat is?
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI’s February 2008 address to the Italian Federation of Spiritual Exercises:
It is ... worth remembering that “retreats” are an experience of the spirit with its own specific characteristics, well summarized in your definition, which I gladly recall:
“A strong experience of God, awakened by listening to his word, understood and welcomed in one’s personal life, under the action of the Holy Spirit, which, in a climate of silence, prayer and by means of a spiritual guide, offers the capacity of discernment in order to purify the heart, convert one’s life and follow Christ, so as to fulfill one’s own mission in the Church and in the world.”
Along with other forms of spiritual retreat, it is good that participation in the Spiritual Exercises does not slacken, characterized by that climate of complete and profound silence which favors the personal and communitarian encounter with God and the contemplation of the face of Christ. My predecessors and I myself have returned to this point several times, and it can never be insisted upon enough.
A good course of spiritual exercises contributes to renewing in those who participate in it a joy of and taste for the liturgy, in particular of the dignified celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and, above all, the Eucharist. It helps one rediscover the importance of the sacrament of penance; it opens the way to conversion and the gift of reconciliation as well as to the value and meaning of Eucharistic adoration. The full and authentic meaning of the holy Rosary and of the prayerful practice of the Way of the Cross can also be beneficially recovered during spiritual exercises.